The Supreme Court on Monday reserved orders on a writ petition filed by Arnab Goswami, Editor-in-Chief of Republic TV, which sought quashing of the FIR registered by Mumbai police for allegedly disturbing communal harmony with his reportage of the gathering of Migrants in Bandra, reports legal news website LiveLaw.in.
Goswami also sought transfer of the probe to CBI, raising doubts on the impartiality of Mumbai police.
A bench comprising Justices D Y Chandrachud and M R Shah also granted interim protection from coercive action on the FIR till the delivery of the judgment.
During the course of hearing, the bench orally observed that appropriate remedies are available for the petitioner in the Bombay High Court, be it in the form of anticipatory bail or for quashing of FIR.
"If you want the quashing of this FIR, the Bombay one and the new one, then you can move the HC. We had earlier intervened due to the multiplicity of FIRs arising out of the same cause of action," Justice Chandrachud, who led the bench, orally said.
The bench also orally observed that a special exemption from the normal process under the Code of Criminal Procedure cannot be made for the case. "We should not create an environment where anybody in particular is exempted from the normal course of proceedings", the judge added.
On April 24, the same bench had granted three weeks interim protection to Goswami with respect to multiple FIRs registered against him for alleged communalization of Palghar lynching incident. The court had also consolidated FIRs in various states and transferred them to Mumbai.
The FIR sought to be quashed by Goswami was lodged at the instance of Irfan Abubakar Shaikh, secretary of the Raza Educational Welfare Society alleging that his channel communalized the incident of large gathering of migrants at Bandra.
Senior Advocate Harish Salve, who appeared for the Republic TV Chief, submitted that the criminal investigation was intended to harass his client for asking "unpleasant questions". He said that Goswami was subjected to 12-hour long interrogation by police on April 25. "The police is interrogating me for 12 hours. Does this FIR require 12 hours of questioning? I think not," Salve said.
He also pointed out that one of the officers who interrogated Goswami has been tested positive for COVID-19. The police did not heed to Goswami's request for interrogation via video-conferencing amid the pandemic, added the senior counsel.
Salve sought to discredit the impartiality of the police by stating that even the CEO of the company was interrogated, and questions related to the funding of the channel were raised. "What has a CEO of a company got to do with a news telecast that purportedly caused communal problems?" he asked.
Expressing doubts about the neutrality of the Mumbai police, Salve sought the transfer of investigation of the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation.
"Considering I have made serious allegations against the local police in my program, I have no problem if the Palghar incident remark is being transferred to the CBI for investigation," Salve said.
"There has to be a balance between Article 19(1)(a) and sanctity of the criminal investigation. Either hear our matter on merits or transfer the matter to CBI. There could be a chilling effect on the freedom of press", he urged, insisting that the investigation was not going on in the proper manner.
This was opposed by Kapil Sibal, Senior Advocate appearing for the State of Maharashtra, saying transfer of case to CBI would mean "investigation will go into your hands".
This statement by Sibal was seriously objected to by Tushar Mehta, Solicitor General of India, said the report published by LiveLaw.in.
In this context, Salve said, "Mr. Sibal's statement shows the need to transfer the case to CBI. This is a political problem between state and centre and I have been caught in a crossfire".
Solicitor General said that he has no sides to take in the case, and was not saying that the court should accept or reject the prayers of the petitioner.
"This is a peculiar case because the case is not against a person but against the society. The case is where the accused has no faith in police and the police has also come to court to "insulate" its investigation," the SG said, alluding to the application filed by Maharashtra police in the top court alleging that Goswami was abusing the interim protection granted to him by the Court.
The SG also added "12 hours questioning towards a citizen in such type of case is really disturbing, I think".
Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal submitted that Goswami was indulging in "pure communal violence".
"Stop this communal violence and communal mongering. Decency and morality you [Arnab] need to follow. You are stigmatizing people by way of sensationalizing things", he said.
In rejoinder, Salve submitted that making critical comments on the issue of Markaz meeting of Tablighi Jaamaat cannot be construed as disruption of communal harmony.
"On the issue of Markaz a lot of people have criticized...if somebody criticises the leadership of a religious group then that is not 295 (Section 295 IPC). If it is then, Article 19 should be done away with!" he said.
"They are trying to stifle an unpleasant voice. The real purpose is to teach a journalist a lesson, by asking very silly questions during the investigation in the case," Salve asserted.